BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Stevenson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-028

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • James Stevenson
TV One

Exposé: The Secret Policeman – documentary – BBC reporter acting undercover as a policeman – reported racist attitudes of some police officers – detrimental to those who do not accept racism, especially young people

Standard 2 and Guidelines 2b and 2c – in public interest that disturbing attitudes are disclosed – not children’s normally accepted viewing time – not upheld

Standard 1, Standard 3, Standard 4, Standard 5, Standard 6, Standard 7, Standard 9 and Standard 10 – to the extent that complaint raised broadcasting standards, all issues assessed under Standard 2

This headnote does not form part of the decision


[1] The BBC documentary Exposé: The Secret Policeman involved a reporter working undercover as a police officer in Manchester. The programme revealed that some officers behaved in a racist manner or articulated racist views. It was broadcast on TV One at 9.35pm on 2 December 2003.

[2] James Stevenson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster that the item should not have been broadcast as it would have a detrimental effect on people who did not accept racism and on young people who might be led to think, without justification, that police officers in New Zealand held similar views.

[3] In response, TVNZ agreed that the behaviour and views disclosed was disturbing but did not accept that there was any reason for not screening the programme. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision Mr Stevenson referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.


[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.


[6] Racist attitudes and behaviour held by some officers in the Manchester city police force were described in the documentary Exposé: The Secret Policeman broadcast on TV One on 2 December 2003. The material was gathered by a BBC reporter acting undercover as a policeman.


[7] James Stevenson complained to TVNZ and argued that the programme should not have been screened. He expressed concern that young viewers might adopt racist views. Moreover, the attitudes disclosed in the programme were unacceptable, he wrote, but viewers might think, without reason, that such attitudes also existed in the New Zealand police force. TVNZ advised Mr Stevenson that it intended to apply Standard 2 of the Television Code to the complaint. In response, Mr Stevenson listed an extensive number of Standards and Guidelines which he considered had been breached by the broadcast.


[8] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 2 and Guidelines 2b and 2c of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.


2b  Factual programmes should not glamorise criminal activity or condone the actions of criminals.

2c  Programmes should not depict or describe techniques of crime in a manner which invites imitation.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] Noting that the broadcast of the documentary in Great Britain had evoked considerable publicity in view of the attitudes disclosed, TVNZ suggested to Mr Stevenson that he might be confusing the message with the messenger. The message, it pointed out, was the worrying level of racism in a police force not dissimilar to the one in New Zealand, and the messenger was the BBC reporter and later TVNZ. TVNZ wrote:

The [complaints] committee agreed with you that the racist views and behaviour among the policemen shown was disturbing and offensive – but it did not agree that because the views were offensive their existence should not be revealed. Surely if racism exists in any public body the public should be told about it?

[10] TVNZ also referred to the freedom of expression affirmed in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[11] As for the specific contents of the documentary, TVNZ accepted that they might be of little relevance in New Zealand, but added that the media had nevertheless reported the documentary’s findings after it had been broadcast by the BBC. It added:

Further, as noted above, this racism was revealed in a society not unlike New Zealand’s and the committee believed that documentaries of this type implicitly provide a timely reminder of the need for constant vigilance lest similar developments occur here.

[12] Turning to Standard 2, TVNZ did not accept that racist attitudes were condoned, endorsed, encouraged or glamorised. Rather, it wrote, uncovering such behaviour supported the maintenance of law and order. As a result, it declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[13] Emphasising that his complaint focused on the impact on young people of the racist views, Mr Stevenson submitted that the broadcast contravened a large number of the broadcasting standards. Young people, he wrote, could easily be misled into thinking that the New Zealand police force was also racist. Mr Stevenson listed Standards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 and a range of Guidelines in the Television Code.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] Explaining that it had had some difficulty in identifying precisely what Mr Stevenson had been complaining about, TVNZ contended that Standard 2 was the appropriate provision under which to assess the complaint.

[15] TVNZ also explained that in view of the time and day of the broadcast, 9.35pm on Tuesday, it was unlikely that those under the age of 15 years would be watching.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[16] Noting that some children watched television through to midnight, Mr Stevenson maintained that the broadcast breached all the standards he had listed.

Authority’s Determination

[17] The Authority’s first task is to determine the appropriate standards to apply. It is of the opinion that Mr Stevenson’s complaint raised two central issues. They were that the broadcast would have a detrimental effect:

  • on people who did not accept racism, in particular those likely to be victims of racism
  • on young people who might be led to think that police officers in New Zealand held similar views to those disclosed in the programme.

[18] The Authority has decided to consider the issues under Standard 2, which is the standard TVNZ applied. While other standards might also have been considered by TVNZ, the Authority accepts that TVNZ dealt satisfactorily with the issues raised in the complaint by considering only Standard 2.

[19] In reaching its decision that the broadcast did not contravene Standard 2, TVNZ acknowledged that it was disturbing and offensive that racist views were held by some police officers, but it also argued that it was in the public interest to expose such views. The Authority agrees with TVNZ on this point.

[20] As for the broadcast’s possible effect on children, the Authority notes that the broadcast began at 9.35pm, which is more than one hour after the AO watershed at 8.30pm. The Authority points out that 9.35pm is not children’s normally accepted viewing time.

[21] TVNZ decided that Mr Stevenson’s complaint did not breach Standard 2. As noted above, the Authority accepts that TVNZ has assessed the complaint appropriately under this standard. On reviewing TVNZ’s decision, the Authority concludes that none of the issues raised by Mr Stevenson breached any other broadcasting standards. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.


For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
1 April 2004


The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1. James Stevenson’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 3 December 2003

2. TVNZ’s Initial Response to the Complainant – 8 December 2003

3. Mr Stevenson’s Reply to TVNZ – 9 December 2003

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Complainant – 23 December 2003

5. Mr Stevenson’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 December 2003

6. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 13 January 2004

7. Mr Stevenson’s Final Comment – 26 January 2004